Andrew Delbanco: I think the American dream means that one imagines the future as being better than the past and better than the present. It means that one can make choices in one's life. And one doesn't need to live within the constraints of the assignment that one's parents have been given by some older culture.
Interviewer: What do you think it means to be a father for your kids? The life you live? The American dream. Talk to you.
Andrew Delbanco: It means that life is about free choice and it means that you don't do what your parents expect of you or what the world expects of you because of the condition into which you were born, or the sex or ethnicity or religion into which you were born. It means that you can choose, you can decide, you can carry yourself as far as your will and your talents will take you. And that's always, I think, been what the American dream has meant. It was a dramatic departure from the experience of most people who came to this country to believe such a thing.
Interviewer: This isn't like a silly question, but do you have any pictures in your head of the American dream? I mean, it's a concept that's hard to imagine because it was the American dream. What are the images that kind of roll through?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I think for all of us, we have some ancestral image of someone getting off of a boat or a plane or maybe stepping out of a wagon train heading west. That is somebody who's made a decision, made a choice to change their life to to step out of a situation that was menacing either physically or spiritually to their capable, their capability of living fully as a human being and taking a step into a new world.
Interviewer: That's grand today, though. I mean, your kids aren't going on a wagon train. They're not going to get off the vote. No on. What do you think, the American dream? What are the symbols today?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, it's a good question, because one might say that America, for most Americans, certainly not all, has collectively achieved this dream of general prosperity. I mean, we are the most prosperous society in the history of the world, far beyond what our ancestors could possibly have imagined. And so to dream about the future purely in terms of more prosperity seems somehow inadequate, seem somehow impoverishing in a strange new way.
Interviewer: And so it is more kind of spiritual, existential. I mean, is that a fair word?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I think it's all it's been. It's always been a mistake to conceive of the American dream purely in terms of my my daddy had one car. I'll have two cars. My daddy had two cars. I'll have three. That's not what it's always been about. It's been about freedom. It's been about self-expression. It's been about the fulfillment of individual possibility. And that has to take new forms for every generation, has to mean something new for every generation. What it means for our children remains. I think to be seen.
Interviewer: Right. So did the American Jews start with Theodore Dreiser? I mean, what were the stories that America has been telling itself about its opportunities, its capabilities?
Andrew Delbanco: You know, in some ways, I think the great success story that lies behind all Americans success stories is the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, who knew as he became an old man that he had become a kind of mythic figure in his own life and wrote down his personal history in a way that many writers have copied and emulated ever since. There's that great moment in Franklin's autobiography when he describes how he thought mob noise and.
Interviewer: Do you think it comes from. How do you think it sort of seeps into everybody's household phrase, popular image of the country themselves?
Andrew Delbanco: I think the granddaddy of all American success stories is probably Ben Franklin's, which he wrote down when he was an old man and described how.
Interviewer: OK, go ahead, I'm sorry. Now, I heard some, some beatings, some beeping, I was writing you starting the American Dream. Are you writing again?
Andrew Delbanco: No. I think Dreiser is aware that the longings that Americans have always felt have maybe reached a new kind of fever pitch and that the possibilities are opening up. The lure of the city means something new for Dreiser than it meant for previous writers, because suddenly one could get to this city by railroad if one felt stifled and suffocated in the kind of small town in which Carrie Meeber grows up. There was a train station a few miles away and you could pack a bag and kiss your mom and dad goodbye and go down to the station and within a few hours be in a totally unimagined world in which all things seemed possible.
Interviewer: So it's significant for you that Dreiser start. Sister Carrie. Carrie, Union Station. What's going on in Dreiser's mind?
Andrew Delbanco: Dreiser starts Sister Carrie with Carrie on a train and she's watching the farmland of Wisconsin go by the window and thinking about places she's been with her parents and watching her childhood disappear before her eyes. And then suddenly this voice from behind her in a coy and seductive manner starts speaking to her. And there's a wonderful short to two word sentence that Dreiser writes that that really gets the novel going in which he says she answered just she answered, meaning that her her small town farm girl restraint and her suspicion of strangers in which she had been educated by her mother and her grandmother melts away and dissolves. And she responds to this beckoning voice. And, of course, as a true it's a man sitting in the seat behind her who's noticed that she's attractive young girl traveling by herself.
Interviewer: So she enters. So she enters a station. Right. Give me a sense of that Chicago world that Carrie's entering and why. What's Dreiser trying to do here? I mean, is it just any old city or any old time with any old girl?
Andrew Delbanco: No, it's the it's the heartland of America that's transformed itself into this bustling, energetic, angry, impossibly rapidly growing city. I think Dreiser says at one point, Sister carry that 50000 people a year were coming to Chicago in the years that he's writing about. He describes how the the lights trail off and just ends sharply at the edge of the prairie. And, you know, the next year they'll move further and deeper into the prairie. It's as if the city is starting to chew away at the edges of the great American heartland.
Interviewer: And the heartland is coming to the city.
Andrew Delbanco: And the heartland is coming to the city. And people like Carrie, young girls looking for fortune. On the one hand, looking for a safe haven where they can where they can be protected from the marauders and seducers of the big city. But on the other hand, looking for excitement, looking for life, looking for what they felt was lacking in their lives back home.
Interviewer: How do you imagine, Carrie? I mean, I realize that she's a fictional character. But when you read Sister Carrie, one of the images, your mind?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I think I imagined Carrie as as bundling herself up at the beginning, walking a little stiffly, walking a little timidly down down these city streets. But as she begins to realize that the eyes of men are upon her, that she has something to offer them that they want, that she embodies perhaps some aspect of their dream. And she begins to come alive. And she begins to realize that she could participate in this marketplace in which she's a commodity that people want to buy. The people want to have for themselves. You know, Carrie comes into the city full of romantic dreams, which are immediately dashed when she sees the way her sister is living. Her sister has come to Chicago before. She has her sisters living in a modest would be, to put it mildly, flat with a exhausted husband who gets up at 5:00 in the morning to go out and try to make a living and and carries carries. You can feel the carries disappointment that this sort of Shangri-La or Oz that she had expected. It turns out to be just another humdrum drumbeat world.
Interviewer: So how does she I mean, does she does she just stay innocent?
Andrew Delbanco: She begins to beat her. She begins to beat the pavement looking for work. She looks and looks for work in a shoe factory and in a hat and a hat factory and discovers that she doesn't have the skills or the stamina or the patients really to to make it in that world. And in fact, she discovers there's no world to make it in where she would that she would become just a functionary. There's one wonderful moment where one of her prospective employers asks, are you a typewriter? That word that in nineteen hundred meant both the machine that was relatively recently invented and the young woman who sat at the machine and did the menial work of typing reports. So she is a cog. She begins to feel like a cog in a machine. But outside that machine, outside these these humdrum, deadening factory jobs that she's looking at, she senses this city of pulsing desires. She goes into a department store, for instance, one of the great scenes in the novel. And Dreiser describes how she feels suspended between desire and self-restraint. She sees all these beautiful things, these things with wonderful alluring odours and and glistening surfaces that are just within reach, but that she can't reach out and take because she hasn't got the money or she hasn't got someone looking after her who's got the money.
Interviewer: So I'm going to ask you then think Dreiser is telling us that the city. When we're talking.
Andrew Delbanco: I think Dreiser is telling us that the city is a place to which people have come full of longing. And when they get there, they discover that their longings are not satisfied. They walk the streets still filled with desire. It's unfocused, it's diffuse, and it can settle on a young girl like Carrie. And it does. So Carrie becomes an object of desire and through satisfying the desires of men who want.
Interviewer: I don't want to get that far.
Andrew Delbanco: That's sort of tells us that there's a desire is not enough. And Dreiser is telling us that desire can never be fulfilled. This is the the one undercuts the force. That undercuts the. American dream that as the possibilities grow, the desire grows and there's a kind of infinite expansion or extension of human desiring. And the theater of that expansion is the city.
Interviewer: So let's talk about this for a second, then this question of talk about in a second. But is it here who is at the top of the social ladder? Do they share anything in common in terms of their access to the dream?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, Lilly is not at the top. Lilly is holding her own somewhere on the second or third rung of a four or five rung ladder. I would say and she's well aware that her greatest asset is her beauty and her reputation, the beauty she won't have forever. And you have the sense in a novel like House of Mirth that the women of Lily's age, Louise, 29 years old. So she's looking at that great dark, treant transition into the 30s that for women of Lily's age. Time is running out. The clock is always ticking. They have to find the right match. They have to find the right husband. And the right husband means somebody with the resources to take care of them and the social standing so that they can lead the lives for which they've been been brought up.
Interviewer: What's interesting to me is, is that that's the same for Carrie. I mean, isn't that the easy way out for for Carrie? The same sort of way off a little?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, the way out for Carrie is to become the desired companion of a man. But, of course, what shocked first the wife of Dreiser's puzzled.
Interviewer: I won't get. We'll get better. Later I looked into. It's just misery doesn't go back to. And she gets sick. Why does she go back to Columbia City? I mean, she just give up and just walk away. No city to feed her.
Andrew Delbanco: No. She she triumphs over the city in a certain in a certain sense. She becomes not just a private object of desire, but a public object of desire. She becomes a a stage actress.
Interviewer: I want to deal with it in pockets here. I want to get to that moment with your way through it. A kept woman isn't. Tell me, how did I go? Through to what is what's the dynamic between her and what's going on with the exchange?
Andrew Delbanco: I think what's going on with Douai is that Carrie is someone who she doesn't think more than one step ahead. She sees she she assesses a man on the basis of how well his shoes are shined. And what draws her first to drew away is the the gleam of the rings on his fingers and the shine of his patent leather shoes. She wants that. She wants to be near it. She wants it to be part of who she is. She wants to have beautiful things in her hands. So she's an easy mark. She succumbs to drew away when she begins to be worn out by the tawdry existence she's been leading in her sister's flat.
Interviewer: Great. One thing. So let me ask you this, do you see Carrie that moment withdrew away? Do you think she's a gold digger? They thought they did.
Andrew Delbanco: No. Now it's greed that was driving her draw. Dreiser's most important word in this book is drifting. Carrie is drifting and she feels herself drifting toward things that she can't have, the beautiful things she sees all around her, the glamour, the comfort that she sees around her. Drew a offers for these things. She hasn't been able to get them on her own. What she has to offer in the hat making the shoemaking factory doesn't cut it. But her beauty or her charm, the youth that she seems to offer, a man will get her those things. And she knows this unconsciously. She doesn't articulate this for herself. She doesn't make a big moral decision that she's going to allow herself to become a kept woman. She allows herself to drift and she drifts into driveway's arms.
Interviewer: What is the transaction taking place between Carrie and her away at that moment when he said don't go home?
Andrew Delbanco: The transaction is simple, that the transaction is simple. Drew a gets Carrie as a as a as a bed partner and a companion. And Carrie gets properly furnished place to live and and a certain allowance for leading the kind of life she wants to lead. She gets clothes and and some touch of glamour.
Interviewer: Do you think that Carrie is somebody that riser is just making up whole cloth?
Andrew Delbanco: No. Dreiser was a man of the world. Dreiser knew what he was writing about. He knew that the city was filled with drip drifting young people who went where fortune beckoned them or the winds of fortune blew them and that many of them were young women, and that for young women, the dream of upward mobility, the dream of leading a better life than they had led back on the farm or back on the small town that were a very limited number of ways that that could be achieved. One of them and one of them was to become the what we would call today eye candy.
Interviewer: So what's Dreiser then using is sort of clay. Where is he getting this material to? To write a book like this is always a not one.
Andrew Delbanco: Dreiser is writing out of his own experience. I'm sorry for Dreiser is writing very much out of his own experience. He's writing about his sisters who were clearly feeling confined and even desperate in the small town life to which they were born back in Evansville, Indiana, and were swept off their feet by men who came to town and took them away, in some cases barely ever to be seen again. So he was writing out of his own experience and his family's experience and his experience as a journalist. Dreiser was one of our first major novelists who didn't didn't get his literary education any a university or in a classroom or by reading the literary classics, but got it in the newsroom by travelling around writing about the local fire or the local the local scandal for for the small town paper.
Interviewer: How do you think being a journalist, being a reporter and not a sort of highbrow affect his writing, open the content. That is what he's writing about in the way he's writing about.
Andrew Delbanco: There is no moralizing and Dreiser, there's no moralizing. And Dreiser and this is one of the things that shocked his first readers. That is there's in a way, there's a no comment at the end of every one of Dreiser's chapters. This is what she did. This is where she drifted. This is where she ended up. This is what she got, period. The story continues. There's no comment about her lost innocence or lost virtue or her endangered integrity. You can draw those inferences if you want. You can read Sister Carrie as a as a moral tragedy if you want. But Dreiser doesn't take you by the hand and lead you in that direction.
Interviewer: So let me ask you about Dreiser, who was born into a prosperous American family.
Andrew Delbanco: Dreiser is our first major writer. It was once said who doesn't have an English or Scots surname? He had a German surname. His father was a German speaking Catholic. He grew up dirt poor, so poor that as a boy, he spent Spences evening hours gathering coal from the railroad tracks to bring home. So that is so that his family could have a fire. This is a writer who really knew what it meant to be poor, really knew what it meant not to have a sense of possibility, not to have a sense of the future, not to have opportunities for formal education. And he wrote out of that experience and he he wrote from the heart. He didn't write so much from the mind as from the heart.
Interviewer: How do you think his father's failure, inability to succeed in America, effective writer, Dreiser?
Andrew Delbanco: I think what's so poignant about Dreiser's writing is always his sense of the fragility of the moment that the moment of pleasure or satisfaction will be gone tomorrow because he saw it in the case of his father. He saw the man struggle to to get his feet on the ground in this new country to which he had come as a German speaking immigrant. And he saw that it didn't work. He saw that his father never regained or achieved the kind of dignity that he had hoped to find in the new world. And he saw that so many Americans were in that same situation, immigrants or not.
Interviewer: It's quite astonishing because, you know, so different than we think the American immigrant experience. Do you think he wanted to be a writer like like Edith Wharton at all? Did you ever. Once he leaves, Terre Haute is gonna be a writer to time for my writing. I want to be a novelist.
Andrew Delbanco: No, I think I think Dreiser was the kind of writer who didn't have a career plan. He had an inner compulsion. And that compulsion was to write down what he saw around him. He was encouraged to do that early on by a teacher when he was a young man and any one when he was a reporter. It was said of him he wasn't so good at getting the news, but he was real good at telling the story. He was a storyteller. He told it for his own purposes. And and in writing, Sister Carrie, I think he told a basic universal American story that hadn't been told before.
Interviewer: No. Never let the facts get.
Andrew Delbanco: Absolutely. I think for some of Dreiser's most powerful moments or those some of Dreiser's most powerful moments are those in which he describes people looking from the outside in standing outside the department store window and looking and seeing the people milling around in the shopping aisles, filling their bags and baskets with the goodies that they can't get their hands on. That's the experience that he had when he first came to the big city. He's writing about his own encounter with the world that he wanted but couldn't enter into.
Interviewer: He's even amazing even actually has travelled to the same year. Right. All right.
Andrew Delbanco: We see Hearst with through Carrey's eyes, and the first thing she sees are his shoes. That is that his shoes are a soft calf leather shined only to a point of a certain dull elegance. And she vaguely, instinctively realizes that maybe this is someone one notch higher on the social ladder from Drew A, who's been wearing shiny patent leather shoes. There's something slightly less vulgar about Hearst Wood, and Carrie has a sense of that. But she reads him entirely through his clothes, as she had once read, draw away. What we learn about Hearst Wood is that he is locked in a in a in a frozen marriage, that he's achieved a certain kind of middle-class or even what Dreiser calls upper middle class stability. He's got a wife. He's got a daughter. He's got a secure job in a bar where a high quality client comes in and he knows how to deal with them. But he hasn't quenched his own longings, his feels, his youth slipping away. And he and he notices in carry an opportunity to get it back, if only for a moment.
Interviewer: He's always drawn, it seems to me, almost to her innocence. I mean, everybody seems to be drawn to Carrie.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, the thing about Carrie that I think Dreiser is so brilliant at drawing is that she's not a seductress. She's not a conscious seductress. Had nothing about her. He says of the courtesan she is innocent and yet alluring at the same time. She has a kind of instinct for drawing men on without calculating it. And this is what she turns to such good effect when she finds that she has a talent for the stage.
Interviewer: That seems to be the wrong question.
Andrew Delbanco: Oh, I think I think the secret to Carrie's success as an actress is that when she walks onto the stage, she she doesn't really cross a line in her own conception of herself. She she's just herself on the stage. She's just exudes this feeling of desire that she that she wants.
Interviewer: I'm losing that way, I guess. How do you see that acting moment? I mean, do you see it as an important moment in the book? Am I wrong?
Andrew Delbanco: Oh, I think it's an important moment. It's the moment in which Carrie discovers her, her avenue to fame, fortune and riches, in a sense on her own. She she graduates from being the object of desire for individual men. And she becomes the object of desire for a whole culture.
Interviewer: For a whole group.
Andrew Delbanco: That's right. What begins in a theater and it soon I mean, she becomes a star. She becomes that that great American dream, a star, a marquee idol.
Interviewer: So we see that the sister here, I guess, is the first born story, right? Yeah. Well, what do you think been seeing before? He seems to really fall for her at that moment right now. Earthward doesn't change anything.
Andrew Delbanco: You know, I would have to go back and read that moment again. Yeah. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. You want me to tell the story of what happens.
Interviewer: Basically can happen anywhere that, you know, somebody asked you question what happens? These are two real people. What happened?
Andrew Delbanco: This is great. Okay. Great pivotal moment in the novel. It's really Hearst Wood's story as much as Carrie's. One day he's cleaning up after work and he notices that the safe hasn't quite closed. He's noticed that little telltale click that tells you that the safe is closed. He hasn't heard it. And suddenly all the desire that he has for a new life, for freedom, for excitement, for liberation, for escape from the enclosed world around.
Interviewer: I don't want to give it. At that moment, sort of, I guess the turning point of the book is what would that key moment for? For the narrative of the story, Hearst, who is cleaning up after a night at the bar and notices that the Trent Lott. First, what drives him? What's going on?
Andrew Delbanco: Hurst Wood's been filled with discontent with the life he's leading and longing for something new. And one night after cleaning up at the bar, he notices that the safe hasn't closed all the way. And there within just a few inches of his fingers is enough money. He imagines to set him up in a new life with Carrie. So it's a it's a half willed moment. It's not something that he really chooses to do. It's something that half happens to him. He reaches in, takes the money and in a kind of feverish moment of decision. He calls Carrie tells tells her to meet him at the station. They get on the train to Montreal and eventually to New York. And he runs away from the life that he had been leading. And fools himself delude himself into thinking that he can begin again.
Interviewer: He gives them like that. Right.
Andrew Delbanco: He becomes as soon as the detectives catch up with him, which, of course, only takes a few days. It becomes abject, embarrassed, shamed, surly, angry. He gives the money back. And so now he finds himself with nothing, without his wife, without his reputation, and with a young girl who soon loses interest in him. Soon becomes bored with him because he's not in a position to give her what she wants, which is a life of glamour and material satisfaction.
Interviewer: There's that wonderful moment that rather has that paragraph where he says, I'll go. Right.
Andrew Delbanco: But Hearst would learns the less Hearst word learns the lesson. That's the dark side, the underside of the American dream. And that is he becomes nothing when he doesn't have the money. It's all about what he can buy, what clothes he can put on his body, what quality leather he can he can buy for his shoes. And when he begins to lose it in that respect. When he begins to become an unemployed loafer loiterer who hangs out in the overstuffed armchairs of New York City hotels pretending that he's got an appointment. But in fact, with nowhere to go, he disintegrates. He disintegrates very rapidly, does he? He becomes an unshaven, he sits he sits at home clipping coupons in the newspaper. He begins to count the pennies as he watches his last assets go into the rent payments. He becomes a study in failure and B, he becomes contemptible in Carrie's eyes.
Interviewer: Does Carrie share, would she also continue this downward downward spiral?
Andrew Delbanco: This is a story about a man's fall and a woman's rise as he declines into this state of just one level above the homeless. Carrie becomes a spectacularly successful stage actress and and their paths, their paths diverge. And, of course, it's the Carrie has something to sell, something to offer her youth. That's her beauty. It's it's the jewels you want to.
Interviewer: Hearst would say.
Andrew Delbanco: No, of course. This is a well constructed novel, and as Hearst Wood begins to spend more and more of his time lounging around with nothing to do and nowhere to go in the overstuffed armchairs in hotel lobbies. Carrie begins her meteoric rise up the ladder to stardom until she begins to become such an asset to the world of fashion and celebrity mongering, which existed 100 years ago, as it does today, that the hotel managers offer her free accommodations. It would be an honor for us if you'd stay in an MS. Addenda, which is her stage name, if you'd stay in our in our penthouse suite. So Hearst, what is downstairs in the lobby, disintegrating into nothing. And Carrie is upstairs holding court.
Interviewer: Literally upstairs. Downstairs. Do you think that Dreiser is passing judgment on Carrie? I mean, this is a woman who's sort of gone by you more.
Andrew Delbanco: That's that's Dreiser's great secret. There are no judgments here. There's there's pity and sympathy tinged with a little contempt for her, Astwood. And there's a certain kind of admiration for Carrie's energy and and brilliance in taking advantage of her own talents. But there's no moral judgment.
Interviewer: So we were talking briefly, getting a chance to out what the American dream had said.
Andrew Delbanco: Ever since Benjamin Franklin wrote down his own story of rags to riches was that it's all about choice. It's all about will. It's all about talent and discipline. If you've got those things, the world can be your oyster. No one can hold you back. No one's in a position to assign you to the place that your parents occupied in the world. What Dreiser is doing is Sister Carrie is showing us how much of that is is false and how much of human destiny is a product of fortune accidents. Coincidence. Being in the right place at the right time. Having a moment of luck or the moment of misfortune. And that was Dreiser's view of life.
Interviewer: How is that view received when he finishes?
Andrew Delbanco: It's received with shock because the business of literature until the later years of the night.
Interviewer: How was that?
Andrew Delbanco: It's received with shock and disapproval. Because the business of literature had been to show the right way to punish the transgressors and to reward the virtuous. Literature was supposed to show us a world where self-discipline and virtue paid off and where duplicity was was punished. And Dreiser just showed us the world as it is, right.
Interviewer: A little bit of be in the ways that you see it is bad reviews.
Andrew Delbanco: What gets you know, what happens is that Sister Carrie was a book that was technically published, but in reality was not published. That is, the publisher issued such a small printing and did so little in the way of promotion, sending out review copies that the book essentially disappeared without a trace. And and Dreiser was devastated because he had been encouraged to do this work. He had believed in it. He had put everything he had into it. And he found that it was like shouting down a well. So he went into a terrible tailspin, a terrible depression. And it was over a decade before he was able to muster the energy to write a novel again.
Interviewer: It's an amazing story. The reception or the lack of reception, Sister Carrie. One thing one wonders how different things would have been at Doubleday, actually. What do you imagine? Well. Let me move. I think that you did for Gary. What is that?
Andrew Delbanco: You know, I think Wharton's Grand Central Station is a great theater. And the first moment when we see when we see Lillian Selden, they're sizing each other up. They're trying to determine whether they're the look of aimlessness, the look of Unser, uncertain waiting is a calculated look or are they really just accidentally running into each other? In other words, we were plunged immediately into a world where people are performing because they are always conscious that they're being observed.
Interviewer: You make that sound a long time ago. Go the library about this was also like people come and go entertain me. Do you think about putting a nineteen hundred book to nineteen hundred roughly books? You're afraid?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I think both Wharton and Dreiser, though, they were coming from utterly different social strata and writing about people from different social strata, were aware of the tremendous mobility of American life that everybody was either on their way up or their way down. And the one thing that you could be sure of if you were an American is that you were wherever you were, was not a place where you were going to stay. So the city with its continual motion, a streetcar emotion, the pedestrian motion a little bit later on the automobile motion. And of course, the great the great symbol of this mobility and this dynamism of American society was the train station, which was the hub, the the the center of the network, the the place of embarkation and disembarkation through which all Americans were journeying someplace from someplace.
Interviewer: Warm and described as someone, she says, a great deal. What did you see? How is Lily a man?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, Lily is is a sort of a self-conscious work of art. She is aware at every moment of the impression that she is making on people around her and she's aware that she is the object of many people's eyes, women's as well as men's women's, sizing her up for her potential competition that she represents in the in the struggle to find the right mate or the right partner. Men sizing her up to see if she carries herself with the proper carriage and if she has the attributes of physical beauty that they're looking for.
Interviewer: So she's just like Harry. She's an object.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, in a sense, she is like Carrie. She has more material resources than Carrie has at the beginning of Dreiser's novel. But she is in a similar kind of marketplace. In fact, one of the I think one of the motives behind Wharton's writing is to peel away the gentility and the surface politeness of her upper crust society that she knew so well by personal experience and to show its brutality, its mercilessness, its the willingness of its inhabitants to to evaluate other human beings as pieces of merchandise.
Interviewer: It's kind of a bit like drive this big city.
Andrew Delbanco: I think so, yeah.
Interviewer: Where is Wharton getting. I mean, if Carrie is in some ways being drawn from Dreiser courting drink from history, whereas Warren's inspiration for someone like a really. From camera roll fifty nine. We're going to be 30 seconds. Whatever you want. What do you want? You know what we did? I want it quiet for 30 seconds. Juan, you're in charge. Rohter. I'm sorry. Actually, I just need to. Yes. Where do you think work is getting her inspiration for something like. Is it just the writer's imagination or Wharton's writing about hers?
Andrew Delbanco: Warden is writing about her social circle. This is a writer who live between Manhattan and the Hudson Valley in the Berkshires and the occasional holiday in Europe. This is a writer who both participated in and watched with a writer's eye. The sort of ballet that the New York upper crust were performing around one another, especially during the summer months when through through the portal of Grand Central Station, they went up the Hudson Valley and and had what they might call a picnic on the grounds of some McKim Mead in white estate on the banks of the Hudson River that the Newport right and Newport left at Newport.
Interviewer: Right. Somebody said, you I have a gift for people over for dinner anymore, sir. That's right. Right. Right, right. Well, do you think that that's a world that nurtured Worton, that nurtured her writing, or did she have to sort of maybe move out a little bit?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I think, you know, I mean, the secret of any writer who plies his or her trade successfully is that she writes from a deep, intimate knowledge of the world that she's describing. But she also writes with a critical eye and a sense of distance from it and a sense of comparison that she can understand that it's the world that she knows is not the only world that can be. And I think if you if you pay attention to Warden's language in a book like House of Mirth, you'll notice that she's very interested in the emerging language of anthropology. She's sometimes describing these well-dressed gentlemen and ladies on the train, up, up, up the Hudson as if they were savages, as if they were illiterate Aborigines engaged in some kind of grotesque mating dance and the homicidal ritual.
Interviewer: That's true, I think, in that scene. Let me see.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I. I can talk about this problem in connection with a couple of scenes, this particular scene. If you want me to do this....
Interviewer: I got to get going to start with it.
Andrew Delbanco: All right. Lily is someone who dresses to appear beyond her means. Her father has gone bankrupt. In a very poignant, powerful scene, Wharton describes how one day the petulant, spoiled young Lily Bard complains that the flowers on the family breakfast table are not as fresh as she would like them to be. Why can't they get fresh flowers every day? And this hollow, desperate laugh comes out of her father's mouth, something that she'd never heard before. Her mother immediately orders the servant out of the room and orders Lily upstairs. Turns out that her father has lost all his money, and the very notion that he could afford to put fresh flowers on the table begins the process of his final decline into death. So Lily comes from a situation where there had once been money, but there isn't enough money anymore. And her assignment that she gives to herself, her task in life is to climb back into that situation where the money is there again. And the only thing she's got to offer her good manners, her reputation and her beauty.
Interviewer: She lived. She still has money.
Andrew Delbanco: That's right.
Interviewer: I'm sorry.
Andrew Delbanco: Yes. She lives as if she still has money, but she's constantly aware that time is running out on her if she doesn't land the right match. If she doesn't make the right alliance so that the money can in fact really be there, she's going to have to start living differently.
Interviewer: Well, there is a man who wants to marry Percy, right? Right. We hear about it right at that moment. What's problem?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, what makes Lily attractive and appealing and enticing for the reader, at least for this reader, is that she can never quite cross that line into pure, full time hypocrisy. That is, she can never quite overcome her own inner disgust and contempt for some of these prospective husbands that she's circling around like a like a bird of prey. So in the case of Percy Gryce, for instance, I mean, he's this desiccated, dried up, prudish fellow whose greatest excitement in life is rattling off his latest acquisitions for his Americana collection. And Lily can't stand the idea of getting anywhere near this guy, much less spending the rest of her life with him. So she blows it. She's she blows it. She she loses her opportunities by failing to make the right meeting, by not showing up at the right time and place, by being seen with the wrong person. Or as in one instance, by letting out the secret that she smokes, that she smoked cigarettes, a fact by which Percy Grice's shocked.
Interviewer: Talk about at the moment in the book, The Tableau. The problem with this. What's the problem with that? What does it, Selvig, not understand about you giving your advice, Republican spirit for yourself? Walk away.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, what Selden doesn't understand about Lily is that she can't walk into this imaginative world, that she's a flesh and blood breathing human being who is born into a certain world and has to find the means to survive in it. It's a nice romantic idea that Seldon can talk about for himself as a man who has more freedom than she has. He can. He can. He can. He can take a mistress. And he can change mistresses. And he can travel. And he can come back. And there's a double standard which Selden knows that he can take advantage of. But for Lilly, Lilly can't walk out of the precincts of respectability and experiment with her life and and go where her imagine an imagination leads her and still expect to be accepted back in the inner circle when she's finished with all of that and wants to come home.
Interviewer: He she she seems almost understand what money was more than so seldom says, you know, don't worry about money. You got to have money and don't worry. All right. How do you think really understands why she get it more say than Carrie gets it or not?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, Lilly understands that money is her only ticket of admission into this into this world, that to which she belongs. And, you know, for young readers today, it's often the case that they'll read this book and think to themselves, well, why can't she just turn her back on this? Why can't she just forget this and go walking off sort of like a Charlie Chaplin figure at the end of the movie into an unknown but exciting and an open future? The reality is she had nowhere to go. She didn't have the the education, the skills, the the the dura, the stamina and toughness needed in the in the workplace. She's almost 30 years old. There's no place for her to go. This is the world in which she has to find her way. She has to compromise. If she doesn't compromise, she won't survive.
Interviewer: And in fact, we can skip ahead as she continues to disintegrate. She can't. She has no skills. Right. Right.
Andrew Delbanco: We see her as she beac, as she's thrown, as she's more and more expelled from from the world in which she one in which she had once belong there. A series of misunderstandings in which it's assumed that she's having an illicit affair with a married man here and a married man. There she becomes soiled goods. She becomes impure. And she begins to feel the force of the of the doors closing of the of the group circling around her and going through the ritual of expulsion. And she has no survival skills once she's expelled from the world in which she was born.
Interviewer: She does sort of like carry almost make it and she can't make it right. Let's go back before. OK, give me a sense of that scene. What's going on?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, this is one of these weekend entertainments that the upper crust set like this like to put on for themselves, in which a woman would a group of people would would would dress up often in classical costume, in a sort of pastoral set and stand as if for daguerreotype portrait stand immobile to be admired in the prolonged gaze of the of the of the audience to show the fineness of their features, the cut of the cloth of the clothes they were wearing. And so Lili becomes a kind of mannequin. She she allows herself to be frozen into him into a moment where time seems to stop and she becomes just a pretty object, just a decoration, just something to be to be placed in the on a pedestal or on the wall of a Hudson Valley mansion.
Interviewer: And any kind of connection between that and carry as an actress or is that a real stretch?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, what Dreiser what Dreiser and Warton both understood about late 19th, early 20th century America, was that what a woman had to begin with in to end with was her looks? Was her charm her her physical charm? The sweetness that she could induce in the eye of a man? That was her greatest currency. That was her greatest asset. Her greatest investment. And there's a there's a moment in time in the House of Mirth where Lili, after a day of preening and posturing and one of these country garden party. Goes back up to her room and sits in front of the mirror and sees herself by the electric light and sees a tiny hint of a wrinkle under her eye. And this feeling of panic and terror begins to take over. And she convinces herself. Now it's it's the light. It's the bad light. She's her beauty. Her beauty is not really going. Her looks are not really going. Because she knows that when they go, she's lost.
Interviewer: Investments in Wall Street. She she gets a stockbroker. You invest.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, she's got a small inheritance. And and she tries to make it go further than it's going to go by investing it and taking risks with it and being in a moment in our history when a woman was not supposed to know anything about finance and not really know anything about accounting. She lets a man do it for her and she gets herself in a situation where she thinks that the income that she's enjoying is coming from her own investments. It turns out it's coming from a man who has designs on her and becomes known in Lilly's inner inner circle that she's gotten money issues. And one of her male acquaintances is a married man, offers to help her with her investments. He's a whiz. He knows the workings of Wall Street. So he's going to do some magic with a small amount of money that she's got and turn it into the kind of money she needs. There's a tacit assumption on his part that she understands that there's going to be some kind of payback at the end of this process or maybe in the middle of it. And there's a frightening, very brutal scene there. No, there's no physical assault, but there's a brutal scene in which this man comes, as it were, to collect what he thinks Luly owes her, which is, of course, her physical favors. And and she's shocked. She's just she's shocked because while everyone around her seems to think that she's bartering her body in exchange for this kind of financial support, the reality is she isn't. And she'd never it never occurred to her that this was the game that she was involved in. At that from that point on, she begins an even more rapid descent.
Interviewer: When Lili gets the money, he gives her a thousand dollars. Right. And what does she do? She put it in the bank that she saves the money that she's making for Wall Street.
Andrew Delbanco: I don't I honestly don't remember how that goes. Is she. No. No, she has to. Then she has to cut back on her way of living. She has to. She has to live parsimonious lea and and and give up the few luxuries that she had still maintained in order to buy her dignity back by paying off the debt that she owes them in some currency other than sex.
Interviewer: So do you look at this for a moment between these two? Are they? Is it the similar transaction?
Andrew Delbanco: No, I think. I think Lily is a more conscious figure than Carrie. Lily is more consciously withholding herself from the most debased and vulgar aspects of the world in which she live. She's she thinks of herself as a lady. She thinks of herself as a beautiful object. And she thinks that exhibiting her grace and sharing her charm in conversation and dancing, perhaps, and in the tableau of evil should be enough to earn her a secure place in the society into which she was born. She doesn't realize the ugliness. It's just a little bit below the surface.
Interviewer: I mean, I talk over this plane and let it go. What do you do that now?
Andrew Delbanco: One of the great ironies of this book is that everybody thinks that Lily has, as it were, fallen from virtue. That is that she's putting out in exchange for the favors that these men are doing for. But she isn't. So she had one of the themes of this book is this distance between reputation and reality in reality. She's leading a life of great purity and virtue. But her reputation is that of a fallen woman, of a solid woman, of a compromised woman.
Interviewer: So what do you think? Driver and Werner both kind of getting similar themes here. Are they now or is it sort of the transactions of the same?
Andrew Delbanco: Dreiser and Warton are describing a world around nineteen hundred which is being engulfed by marketplace values. It is the small town values that Carrie grew up with, or this sort of crazy aristocratic values that Lillies people have aspired to are not what cuts it anymore. This is a world where if you get if you want something, you give something. If you give something, you expect something in return. All the transactions in these books are given take, buy and sell. You've got something I want. I've got something you want. Let's do business. And the innocent people like Lily and the Innocence don't survive in this world. And the innocence like Lily, Bart can't survive in this world. Hearst would ultimately doesn't survive in this world because what he's got to offer, which is a little glamour, a good cut of clothes, a nice night out on the town for Carrie. He becomes less and less able to deliver and he just becomes discarded. He becomes refuse. He ends up as a bum in the park outside of City Hall in New York, begging for for food in the snow. And Lily that same.
Interviewer: So almost done.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, that's, I think, not too complicated because the overwhelming audience for fiction in this country has always been women. And Edith Wharton has critical and incisive as she was about the world of high society that she was describing, was writing about the kind of dilemmas, the kind of transactions, the kinds of worries and aspirations that women with a certain amount of leisure time could afford to buy books and spend their time reading books were involved with and their own lives. She was writing about the lives of her readers are to some extent, the lives to which many of her readers aspired. Dreiser, on the other hand, was writing about a life that the reading public didn't want to look at, a reality that the reading public didn't really want to know about.
Interviewer: But is it do you think it's significant that Carrie is that she's sitting by the window and she's kind of got some sense of lack of satisfaction that she succeeds and that that really dies? I mean, does Wharton give us the end that that morally we think we should have? I mean, she doesn't challenge. Does she or does she? I don't like to dismiss the book as I want me to do. But there's something about the expectations that weren't fulfilled that drives her.
Andrew Delbanco: I think there's this there's a certain tinge of sadness to Wharton's book. But there is an outrage. There's a tinge of sadness to Wharton's book. But there is not a sense of outrage and revulsion. It's not a book that that hits you in the face, that that attacks you for believing that this world in which warden describes makes any kind of sense at all. And so in that sense, it's palatable. It's digestible. It it has a dimension of entertainment as well as of critical judgment. And so it finds an audience. And the other Dreiser's is a book that if you take it seriously, it's a devastating book because it's a book that tells us that we all have just a few moments in the sun, a little tiny glimpse of the fulfillment of our desires. And then we're passed over by by the guy who's walking faster than we are down the street or the or the girl who's got a a better shape or a better stride or a better pair of legs and gets the part that we once had.
Interviewer: Is that life is unfair? Right. Let's cut. I think we're done with debating the American dream only so that he can tear it.
Andrew Delbanco: Look the American dream gets written down, probably when not the American you know, the American Dream gets written down in its first and perhaps most memorable form by Ben Franklin, who tells this sort of outrageously upbeat story about his own life, which is that he's supposed to be apprentice to his older brother. He's supposed to go into his father's candle making business. He doesn't want any of that. He steps out on his own and he says, the hell with all of that, gets on a boat, leaves his hometown of Boston, goes to Philadelphia, walks, walks down Market Street in Philadelphia. And all he's got are our three pennies in his in his pocket. He goes into a bakeshop. He comes out with with three loaves of bread. And by the time he's consumed those three loaves of bread, he's got nothing. His pockets are empty. He's got nothing but his ingenuity, his own resources, his own aspirations. And of course, we know what happens next. He rises through the ranks, becomes the most successful printer, inventor, public spirited citizen in America. Leader of the revolution, statesman, successful lover man about town, Cosmo, Cosmopolitan Hero, etc., etc.. So a written into that story is the idea that you can make of yourself anything you will. Nobody tells you what you're going to be, who you're going to be or how you're going to get there. It's a great story and it's a great book. Only trouble with it is it's it's also a book that's full, if not of whys, of mis presentations and elisions and erasures in the sense that we don't see all the people that Ben Franklin steps over on his way to the top. We don't see all the casualties. We don't see all the people who have the same aspirations he had. But don't make it. And who lead lives, as Thorold put it later, of quiet desperation.
Interviewer: One of the things that Franklin does also is he's got a quick, easy slogan. Go right.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, Franklin boils down his life into aphorisms of the sort. Early to bed, early to rise. A penny saved is a penny earned. And he even keeps a chart so that he can, at the end of every day, give himself marks on how virtuous he's been and how frugal and how industrious he's been. Same kind of chart that turns out that Jay Gatsby keeps for himself in Fitzgerald's novel. But what you don't see in Franklin's book are the acts of duplicity, the act of betrayal, the fast and loose bargaining that clearly was part of his rise to success.
Interviewer: Let's talk about our story. One of the things that the American people need to believe in the future.
Andrew Delbanco: They need to believe in possibility for themselves. Here was a country which had just gone through the throes of industrialization. Hundreds of thousands and millions of people were finding themselves in these roiling cities without any clear sense of what kind of life they were going to make for themselves. Along comes this man, Horatio Alger, who churns out these stories about young boys who begin as ragged news newspaper hawkers or glorified beggars in the street and who end. As respectable middle class gentlemen, that's what the public wanted. That's what they wanted to believe. And here were stories in which they could see it happening. They could see the turns in the road. The choices that are made, the choices that lead in the right direction, the bad choices that lead in the wrong direction. This was inspirational literature. It was a kind of substitute for religious writing. Follow this path. Follow these precepts. And this can happen to you, too.
Interviewer: Let's let's start with how we're introduced to Jay Gatsby. Is it like the way the Dreiser meets shows us Carrie Meager? Do we see Gatsby right away from the very first page of Flesh and Blood?
Andrew Delbanco: No. You don't see Gatsby till the book is well along. You hear about Gatsby. You see Gatsby's house. You meet Gatsby's guests. But Gatsby is off somewhere in the mythic world where from which he from which he hails. And there's a kind of fevered speculation about who he is. People tell stories...
Interviewer: How are we introduced against what impact, the way Fitzgerald.
Andrew Delbanco: Fitzgerald plays with our expectations and anticipations. He doesn't show us Gatsby till we're well into the book. We see his house. We meet his guests. We hear stories about him that he's a bootlegger, that he's this is he lives on a houseboat. All kinds of stories. And so there's a kind of a crescendo of anticipation that builds up. And in fact, when we finally meet him, we see him from a distance, a figure framed, framed against the sky. And we don't get anywhere near him until later in the book when we see his face to face encounters with Daisy.
Interviewer: Eventually, we meet his house and meet his parties. We meet the man. It's almost as if Fitzgerald saying that the house that the parties, they are Gatsby, right?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, Fitzgerald seems to be suggesting the place. Fitzgerald seems to be suggesting that Gatsby is what he owns, that Gatsby is his is his things, his accoutrements, his costume, the atmosphere that he creates around him. But what is at the center of Gatsby, what Gatsby really is in himself remains a mystery. Maybe in some ways through the end of the book.
Interviewer: What do you dream the American dream is even embodying?
Andrew Delbanco: Gatsby is the pure embodiment of the American dream in the sense that he is a man who has reinvented himself. He's, as Fitzgerald puts it, the platonic conception of himself. He has an idea as a as a young boy. And he and he and he lives himself into that. He imagines himself living a certain kind of glorious life and and and achieves it. But what he is at the center of his being it a are it if there is this, is there a center to his being remains an open question in this book. And it is a book that poses finally the question, is the American dream a lie? Is it possible to reinvent oneself? Well, Gatsby seems to be caught up in the end, destroyed in the end by his own humanity. He seems unable finally to live as a dream figure, as a Hollywood creation, or as a self created Hollywood idol because he has this unsuppressed BHEL unabated longing for this one person, this one moment in which he felt authentic surge of feeling and that he wants to get back, that he becomes vulnerable. He becomes a trembling boy again when he's in the presence of Daisy. And Fitzgerald conveys this in the most with the most brilliant economy of expression. Remember that scene where he demands of Daisy as she's standing there with her husband in the room? He demands that Daisy should say she never loved her husband. She never loved anyone but Gatsby. This is what he needs to hear. This is what his whole being is trembling to hear. And Daisy can't say it. She key. She says, I did love him once. That is her husband. And Fitzgerald conveys the ferocity, the horror of this moment for Gatsby by telling us simply he opened and closed his eyes. That's all just he opened and closed his eyes and that one short sentence describing this as a physic.
Interviewer: What do you think? What do you think Gatsby wants from day to day when he says. Tell him you never loved. What's he. What's he demanding of Daisy? What does he want?
Andrew Delbanco: He wants of Daisy intimacy with someone who knows him as a human being and who believes that there is a core to him. And then who who needs to be near that core of him and who is not satisfied with his, his or Dervaes and is and is his entertainment. And is the scenery that he creates around him?
Interviewer: The irony of the irony of this one, I think the whole point right. Is he's not moving along along is a good.
Andrew Delbanco: Gatsby is is a consummate success at living the American dream. And he's also simultaneously destroyed by it because he confuses his effects. He confuses his power that he can exert on other people the performance that he is mounting all the time, day and night when he has the sense he's performing in his sleep. He confuses all that with some kind of lost reality that he part of him needs to regain contact with. Who is he? He needs somebody to tell him who he is. And he hopes Daisy will do it. But he tries to entice Daisy into that act of intimacy by performing for her by. Pretending for her by impressing her.
Interviewer: Like the shirts. All right. I mean, he shows her look, I've got the stuff. I'm rich. Right. Isn't that what he's doing? All right.
Andrew Delbanco: And Daisy comes into his house and experiences the grandeur of it, the size of it, the spaciousness of it, the perfection of it, and the ultimate moment of of recognition through which Gatsby hopes Daisy will come to her senses about him and realize that he has always been the man for her is when he shows her his shirts and she says such beautiful shirts. I've never seen such beautiful shirts. He's almost got her, but not quite.
Interviewer: And she starts to cry. Oh, right. So why does she cried? What's going on? Do you want to be OK? Rather good.
Andrew Delbanco: It's the morning of Gatsby's funeral and his father, Mr. Gazza's, journeyed east from the Midwest and meet Nick in the mansion and in a great excitement, wants to show Nick some mementos of one more time. Start from the start. All right. It's the morning of Gatsby's funeral, and Mr. Gazza's journeyed all the way from the Midwest East to come to this funeral. He meets Nick in the mansion and any great excitement wants to share with him some of the mementos of his son's childhood. Almost as if to prove that he had a childhood, that he really was a real little boy. And he has in his hand a copy of Jimmy's Hopalong Cassidy book in which in the back flyleaf, it kept a list, a little list of admonitions for himself. And this is what he wrote. Rise from bed six a.m. dumbbell exercise and a wall scaling 615 to 630. Study electricity, etc.. 715. Date fifteen. Work eight. Thirty four thirty. Baseball and sports for thirty to five. Practice elocution. Poise and how to attain it. Five to six. Study needed to inventions. Seven to nine. And then underneath that a list of general resolves. No wasting time at chapters. No more smoking or chewing baths every other day. Read one improving book or magazine per week. Same five dollars. He crosses that out and writes more realistically, three dollars per week. Be better to parents.
Interviewer: What's Fitzgerald doing here? Well, I haven't seen the end of the book.
Andrew Delbanco: This is, of course. I'm sorry. This is, of course, almost verbatim rewriting of the famous list of virtues that Ben Franklin keeps for himself to try to turn himself into a success. It's a it's a blue. It's the blueprint for success. It's the American blueprint for success. Learn the discipline. Put aside the frivolities. Turn yourself into somebody worthwhile. Somebody is going to make a difference in the world. Someone is going to make an impression on the world. Leave a mark on the world. It's it's the moment. It's the record of the moment that J. Gets starts to turn himself into Jay Gatsby.
Interviewer: And he ends up like Ben Franklin. Right. Big success, American. Well, what does he mean? Is it different? I mean, it's interesting. We've known that he's died and that's when he gives us the Ben Franklin moment. What's Fitzgerald thing?
Andrew Delbanco: He doesn't quite have what it takes to make to maintain himself as a created fiction. Because finally, he's brought down by his longing for this one real thing that he had in his life, and that was his love for Daisy. And in a sense, he just he destroys himself from within. Bye bye bye. Conceding that there's actually a real person in there somewhere. The Depression came close to killing the American dream in the sense that people who believed that if you worked hard and you kept the straight and narrow and you pushed yourself in the direction of the virtues you had learned from your mom and your dad, you would get what you deserve, which was at least some stability and some modicum of prosperity, discovered that it wasn't. So they discovered that the world made no sense, that some invisible far away banker was gonna take your house or your job or your car away from you. Despite the fact that you were ready to get up early in the morning and go to work, just like Ben Franklin said, you were supposed to do that.
Interviewer: What does the Depression do or how is. How is the Depression reflected in American literature?
Andrew Delbanco: You know, I think the most vivid statement about the meaning of the depression in our literature is probably Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, which is such a bitterly ironic book because it's about a westward journey. It's about a group of Americans who are heading toward what's supposed to be the land of plenty. The land of opportunity, the land of Hollywood, after all, California dreamin. And what they discover along the way is that the deprivation gets deeper and deeper. The they're the insults to their dignity come faster and more furiously at every step of the journey. And they're heading into a kind of hell rather than toward redemption. And Steinbeck wrote this, I think, with a great combination of bitterness and indignation, because these were decent people who embodied all the virtues that one associated with the American, with the American working man and the stalwart woman who stood by her man. They have all the virtues of family and loyalty and tradition, decency, a sense of fair play and equality. All those democratic virtues are on that in that car with the Joad family. And yet they can't make them work for them. They can't make a living out of those virtues.
Interviewer: They can't make a living at all. Doesn't ask you about the Jodes. We see them in some ways. Thompson back family farm is long gone, collecting things and putting them in his car. Do you think Jodes see themselves outside the American dream? Do they imagine their lives separate apart from the dream? They sense their failure?
Andrew Delbanco: No, I think I think I think the Jodes don't know what or whom to blame for their failure. They're in a new kind of situation. I mean, on the one hand, it's the it's it's the weather. It's the lack of rain. It's the dust. The deepening dust under and underneath which nothing seems able to grow. But there's also this invisible, far away enemy, the great eastern bank, that that tells the local bank that tells the local sheriff that talked up, tells the local foreclosure officer to come out and and post the foreclosure sign and take the land away. And they don't know they don't know what the forces are against, which they are contending.
Interviewer: And so they still think that there is hope. There is still the dream. Well, it's a book. And whether the point of their entry as they drive the thing that makes the journey. Right. Right.
Andrew Delbanco: They they and they insist that the setbacks are are not forever. They insist that that someday things will be made right again. That said, someday the resilience and the forces of redemption that they keep seeing in nature itself will come will come to bear on their lives and and the horror will be over and the dream will be restored.
Interviewer: So we've had Joads like him are full of fury and vinegar.
Andrew Delbanco: No, I think Steinbeck is he evokes quite effectively a sense that these are people who are rather numb. These are people who are rather passive, despite the fact that they're on a westward journey. They're not inclined to finger point and work themselves up into a rage against this or that force that's contending against them there. They're gentle people, ultimately. And I think what he's what he's looking for in the course of writing The Grapes of Wrath is an awakening political consciousness. That is this was a moment in our history when things had gotten so bad, when this capitalist system seemed to have broken down so thoroughly that people from relatively moderate political positions were moving toward a radical view that something fundamental had to be done to to change altogether the way Americans organize their lives.
Interviewer: But what are just suggesting things that are really early about making that Joads that you say is not right. They're not communists. They're not like in dubious battle, is that it must've known that when the books published that people can identify them and there they are. And to use a phrase, a typical American family is that I mean, what's the is there a genius behind it or is there any sense behind that that they're a typical American family?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, I mean, again, I think, you know, Steinbeck was was a writer who thought of fiction as an instrument for bringing the news, bringing the news to people who were living inside the dream and who were doing reasonably well. Despite the deprivations of the depression, it was a book about how the other half lives or maybe at that point about how the other three quarters or the other seven eighths lived in 1930s America. A book that said you don't think about where your corn comes from or where you're where your wheat comes from. But these are the people who work themselves to the bone so that you can have food on the breakfast table. And these are the lives that they're leading.
Interviewer: And this is the life they're suffering right now saying the dream is dead.
Andrew Delbanco: No, I think Steinbeck is writing in order to appeal to the outrage of Americans that the world, as it's put together in 1939 when he wrote that book, has become an unfair world and that the virtues that Americans have promised to themselves and to their children would stand you in good stead in this life. And if you behaved according to those virtues, you'd have a chance in the world that those virtues had to be restored to meaningfulness. He wrote it out of outrage and indignation, not out of despair.
Interviewer: But is his sense then, that the dream is still possible? I think so. I think so.
Andrew Delbanco: Yeah. I think he he wasn't sure that that the notion of the accumulation of private property was the way to continue to make the dream possible. He was playing with the idea that the society had to be reorganized so that people who didn't have anything could have something in people who had lots of stuff, could have something taken away from them. But I think he thought of it. He always thought of it within the context of the fulfilled fulfillment of of an American promise that this is what Americans deserved. This is what Americans had earned through their history. And this is what Americans were going to have, again, was a champion.
Interviewer: All right, let's cut. The book is your soft woman, hard woman, kind of close, you imagine she's wearing. How did she come alive for you?
Andrew Delbanco: Ludi is a as a woman of great beauty and great dignity who is trying to bring up her son on her own after having left her husband because he'd been unfaithful to her. And she's an embodiment of the American virtues. She doesn't expect the world to give her anything on a platter. She expects to work for what she gets. She expects her child to behave and and and work hard in school. She's a typical American. What she discovers about herself, which is something of which she's almost unconscious at the beginning of the book, is by virtue of the fact that she's black. She's not regarded by most of the rest of the world as a typical American. But you want me to repeat it?
Interviewer: Yeah, just. What is she missing? Is she missing willingness to work hard? Is she missing the virtues of what she's Millette.
Andrew Delbanco: Lutie Johnson is missing is a white skin. Lutie Johnson has gotten violent and stark education in American racism when she works as a servant in a white family in suburban Connecticut and discovers that for the children of the family she works for, all the best schools are open. All the best opportunities are available. But for her own child, the things are much more circumscribed. Things are much more limited. And she runs into the possibility that her hopes for her own child are illusions, that her dream is a is a false one.
Interviewer: Whereas at that moment in the book. Right, she listens to all the stuff that's going on in Connecticut. Say she's listening to something where she's thinking, yeah, that's my problem. I'm not saving enough. I'm not working hard. And right now, what's happening to her in that moment of the book? You know, Sabira, without telescoping the rest of the story, she's absorbing the dream, isn't she? And she thinks that what's her problem in her mind?
Andrew Delbanco: Well, her problem in her mind when she's in Connecticut is her husband's behavior. And and the fact that that isn't that I got that wrong.
Interviewer: Let's move on. Let's go down to that moment. Looking as she's walking and what's what is NPG? This is the loaves of bread-
Andrew Delbanco: And I don't remember. I mean, she buys loaves of bread and then thank you.
Interviewer: And Ben Franklin. Things that amputee's playing with literarily. Yeah.
Andrew Delbanco: Well, look, Lutie Johnson has those Ben Franklin virtues. There's a scene in this novel in which he actually goes into a bakery, just as Ben did, and buys three rolls and walks down the street, which happens to be 116 Street and in Harlem. But what I think she's beginning to realize with her consciousnesses is Dorning, is that the dream is something out there for other people and that her possibilities, even if she sticks to the straight and narrow and leads this life of Franklin and virtue, are very much more limited than she's been led to believe.
Interviewer: Why is an author somewhat Petry for a moment not about why even have that scene? There was. What do you think the author is trying to do?
Andrew Delbanco: Because what Petry is doing here is she knows that most of her readers are going to be white, probably white women, that their sense of sympathy and outrage on behalf of this virtuous woman and will be awakened by there, by this demonstration, by their recognition that here is someone who internally, in terms of her moral, moral content, of her mind and her heart is every bit as virtuous and deserving as any other American mother. But she the opportunities aren't there. The world is closed off to her. She's been lied to. She's been sold a bill of goods. The American dream for her is an American myth. An American lie.